Holistic Health and Whole Person Care
History of Medicine
Throughout most of human history, the practice of medicine was focused on the whole person.
For example, health care in Ancient Greece as practiced by Hippocrates had as its central feature a “healthy mind in a healthy body”, and described “harmony between the individual, social and natural environment” as a prerequisite for health.
Similarly, the ancient practice of Ayurveda, which originated in India over 3,000 years ago, uses interventions such as diet, herbs, yoga, and meditation to achieve a healthy balance of body, mind and spirit.
Traditional Chinese Medicine, which also emerged several thousand years ago, takes a similar approach to health, with a focus on balancing Qi, called the “vital force of life”.
In contrast to a whole-person approach to healthcare, the practice of modern medicine over the last century has become increasingly specialized and compartmentalized. This view is both reductionist and materialist.
A reductionist view is one that breaks a complex system down into smaller parts, such as the breakdown of the human body into discrete function-based systems.
A materialist view is one that views life as consisting exclusively of matter and assumes that everything that happens is based on physical properties.
Matter is the foundation of life, and there is no spirit, soul, or God. Every process in the human body can be traced back to a physical cause and there are no non-physical influences on health. The materialist view holds that humans consist of a body and that the mind is exclusively a function of the brain.
The reductionist and materialist worldviews have been around for a long time. However, their dominance in medicine was rapidly accelerated in the last century following the publication of the Flexner Report in 1910.
The Flexner Report was written by US science administrator and politician Abraham Flexner for the Carnegie Foundation and contained a detailed proposal for the reformation of medical education in the US and Canada. Flexner viewed virtually all complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) (such as homeopathy, chiropractic, and naturopathy) as “medical sects” that did not belong in the biomedical model.
The Flexner Report had a profound impact on complementary health approaches such that these were rejected from inclusion in medical education, as well as from medical care. CAM was viewed as a threat to “empirical allopathy” and was pushed to the margins of Western medicine.
Approaches to Health Care
In modern medicine, the dominance of the reductionist and materialist views can be seen in the medical specialties, which include, but are not limited to:
- immunology (relates to the immune system)
- endocrinology (relates to the endocrine system)
- neurology (relates to the nervous system)
When we think of how rapidly medical technology has advanced, it is easy to understand how this approach evolved. It would be very difficult to be an expert in all but a small niche of modern medicine, and an advantage of this reductionism is that it has allowed doctors to develop an enormous depth of expertise in their respective areas.
But it also comes at a cost, because inherent to reductionism is a loss of the recognition of the interconnectedness that exists between biological systems.
Not all disciplines of modern medicine take a reductionist and materialist approach.
Functional medicine is a specialty that seeks to address the root causes of illness, and in this way looks at the body as an integrated whole.
Similarly, integrative medicine seeks to treat the whole person as a “body, mind and soul”, and integrates complementary and conventional therapies. These approaches to health care are becoming increasingly popular with both doctors and patients, accessible at places such as the Centre for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic Centre for Integrative Medicine and Health.
While the increasing popularity of these approaches is encouraging, it has yet to be widely embraced by Western medicine.
The complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) professions that were marginalized following the publication of the Flexner Report take a very different approach to health. In general, their approach is integrative, interconnected, and view human life as both material and non-material.
Many of the complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) professions have been practiced for hundreds or even thousands of years and have a foundation of traditional knowledge that was viewed by Flexner as being “un-empirical”.
Another notable point of distinction between modern medicine and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), is the focus on treatment versus prevention of disease.
As described in a recent essay by Dr. Baskhara P. Shelley, many ancient holistic practices served to promote health and well-being as well as to prevent illness.
In contrast, modern medicine is largely about treating disease, and its “piecemeal” approach makes it difficult to address complex questions by ignoring the whole person, which Dr. Shelley describes as the “dark side of modern medicine”. As an alternative, Dr. Shelley suggests “the biological study of wholes, disease and wellness”.
Holistic Medicine Pillars of Health
This study of “wholes” in the context of disease and wellness is commonly referred to as holistic medicine. Holistic health care views connections not only between organ systems but also between individuals, their communities, and their environments. Overall health reflects the state of all these interconnected parts. The pillars of holistic health include physical, mental, community, environmental, and spiritual.
Physical Health – The health of the physical body
Mental and Emotional/Behavioral Health – The health of the brain and its processes, as well as our emotions and behaviors.
Social/Public/Community Health – The health of our communities and social interactions.
Environmental Health – The health of our environment.
Spiritual Health – Our sense of meaning and purpose. Does not need to have a religious component but religion may be a factor in our spiritual health.
Holistic Health Care Research
The holistic approach to health care is entirely consistent with evidence-based medicine. Research supports the effective and efficient use of CAM practices, such as acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic, and energy medicine practices such as Reiki and Therapeutic Touch. There is also evidence that shows the positive effects of spiritual practices such as prayer on health.
Evidence in these areas includes a range of research types, including clinical trials, observational studies, case studies, and animal and in vitro (cell culture) studies. Studies include different target populations and health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and allergies.
The health outcomes that have been assessed are similarly broad and include things like quality of life, recovery from disease, and maintenance of health. Treating the whole person clearly yields many benefits, and it is no longer possible to exclude these practices on the basis that they are unempirical.
Create Your Personalized Approach
There are several different approaches to getting started with holistic care. Some practitioners, such as naturopaths (NDs) or functional medical physicians (MDs) offer their patients a wide range of holistic practices as part of their treatment toolbox, while others, such as acupuncturists, focus on a single type of treatment administered through a holistic lens.
Regardless of the approach taken, it is always focused on the individual. This individualized approach is referred to as person-care, or person-centered care, which is health care that is driven by the patient’s goals, preferences, and values.
As patients become more educated about the pillars of holistic care and how to support these pillars, they often develop a personalized approach that works for them. Typically, a sort of “care team” is assembled that includes a range of caregivers, some of whom may work together to offer coordinated care.
Patients can be their own case managers or case management can be done by a dedicated healthcare provider. Given the wide breadth of practices that can be used to support the whole person, it is not uncommon to see many different practitioners involved in care management, particularly in the treatment of chronic or severe illness.
When the team is extended, it is important to share information between team members for effective care coordination.
Fringe – Whole Person Holistic Healing
At Fringe, we believe that a holistic approach to health care is critical to both the prevention and treatment of disease, as well as to the maintenance of good health. Holistic care can be inclusive of everything contained within the reductionist model but is not limited by it.
In contrast, the reductionist/materialist model deliberately excludes all non-physical influences on health and fails to consider the interconnectedness of all things.
We believe that all forms of health care, traditional and alternative, are complementary to each other. In fact, many approaches work synergistically. Rather than a hierarchy in which allopathic medicine resides at the top, we instead propose a model in which all forms of health care are collaborative and incorporate the whole person while recognizing the unique strengths and specializations of each.
The contents in this blog; such as text, content, and graphics are intended for educational purposes only. The Content is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your healthcare provider.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of medical advice or treatment from a personal physician.
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Neither Dr. Genevieve Newton, publishers of this content, nor Fringe, Inc. takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content.
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